Living with Love

True love and its obstacles.

When Perfect Couples Don’t Have Perfect Relationships

Painful differences are an invitation to ask, "Who are you?"

Let's call them Juliet and Aaron. Juliet is a music therapist; Aaron was originally trained as a classical musician but now plays in a couple of jazz bands and occasionally sings with a local gospel group. They have a three year old daughter whose care they share. Both are slim with dark hair and glasses; in many ways, they look alike—so much so that strangers sometimes mistake them for siblings.

Juliet and Aaron met in graduate school when they were in their late 20s and were immediately entranced by each other and their long and rich conversations about music and psychotherapy. Aaron was in psychotherapy at the time, so he was as personally interested in therapy as he was in music. They often read the same books and went running together. For weeks at a time they were inseparable. They rarely, if ever, had an argument or even much conflict. Their friends saw them as the "perfect couple," and many envied the ease with which they talked, met and got along with one another's friends and in general enjoyed the warmth of mutual affection and attraction.

At first glance, the kind of easy familiarity Juliet and Aaron experienced is compelling and seems more appealing than a relationship with lots of contrasts, conflicts and needs for explanation. And yet, the sense of being close as pages in a book and already-related can seem a horrible delusion and create a painful sense of betrayal when the inevitable differences show up: gender differences and differences rooted in religion, culture or language from the family-of-origin. Aaron, for example, comes from a Catholic family, Juliet from a Jewish one; Aaron's family is pragmatic and work-oriented, Juliet's is dramatic and emotional. So when Juliet lost her job as a result of budget cuts, Aaron seemed to her "cold and foreign," unable to be emotionally supportive when she needed him most. It was the reason they came into couple's therapy. The perfect couple had, shockingly, reached a point where they feared they might divorce.

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Juliet complained that Aaron only gave "lip service" to the fear and anger she felt when her job was suddenly cut. Aaron, on the other hand, said he had done everything he could—offering to take their daughter for longer periods so that Juliet could look for work, suggesting that she attend a national conference for music therapists, even offering to give up his gigs with the jazz bands if Juliet found a job in another city. But what Aaron did not give Juliet was mindful witnessing of her actual experience; he didn't seem to know the emotions and stress she was feeling. He gave her problem-solving advice and practical support, assuming that the help he offered was what she would want because it was the sort of help he would have wanted under the same circumstances. Aaron was amazed when Juliet complained that she felt "he hardly knew" who she was anymore. He thought he knew her "like the back of his hand."
In order for Aaron and Juliet to be a truly "perfect couple," they must consciously abandon their belief that they know one another supremely well and instead ask with new-found interest and curiosity about one another's individuality . They must embrace the idea that their new, painful differences are not signs of betrayal but the doorway to a renewed sense of mystery and a desire to know—an invitation to ask the burning question, "Who are you?"

Before going on, I want to interject another, more personal story—as a point of comparison with Juliet and Aaron. My husband, Ed Epstein, and I were another kind of perfect couple: a couple of perfect contrasts! Our personal habits, styles, organizational capacities and personalities were, in many obvious ways, very different. From the beginning, other people often remarked on this. They said that Ed often seemed more laid-back, pleasure-seeking, warm, and revealing of his vulnerability, while I seemed more organized, comprehensive in my social planning, direct in my communications, and less revealing of my weaknesses. Despite my deeply held feminist principles, I did all the typical female things—keeping the social events going, taking care of the domestic aspects of our lives and keeping up with our children—while Ed did the typical male things—maintaining the outside of the house, buying and selling cars and machines, forgetting peoples' birthdays and shopping for gifts at the last minute, and buying and selling gadgets like TV's and DVD players. In a reversal of the traditional gender roles, however, I was the major breadwinner and Ed kept the financial accounts and managed the business.

Yet alongside the many differences that made us seem like polar opposites, Ed and I had deep and particular familiarities and things in common. Perhaps most central to our everyday lives, Ed and I were both psychotherapists and we often worked together, as a team, in treating couples. Off on our walks in the morning or lying in bed at night, we frequently reviewed whatever stayed in our minds from our work and genuinely enjoyed knowing about the intricacies of people and their lives. We did not, of course, reveal the identities of our various clients, but we would talk about what puzzled, amazed and deepened our cherishment from our work in psychotherapy. And we never tired of "analyzing" our own relationship and family dynamics, as well as the various conflicts, challenges and delights in the lives of those friends and family we knew best.

We also loved movies and poetry and spent hours expanding and appreciating these interests. Every Friday night, when it was possible—especially after our kids were grown—we'd see a movie, and every Saturday we'd spend some part of the day reviewing what we'd seen. Often we agreed deeply and intuitively about what was good, true, and wonderful in the movies we saw. It was the same with poetry: we'd read it aloud to one another and talk at length about its meaning. Rarely did we argue about movies or poetry, although we could certainly have sharp differences of interpretation, just as we often had conflicting opinions about family life and friends. And finally, not least, we loved beauty—natural beauty, color, home design and passing beautiful moments, in both sights and sounds. No matter what else might be going on with us, how we were disagreeing about the trillion things that could provoke a crabby conflict, we could be broken open and moved to tears or laughter by the sunset, a flower, a shadow falling at a certain angle, the color of someone's shoes. And so we were always ready to be familiar again.

But the point is this: our familiarity was not the easy familiarity that comes from happy coincidences and a fortuitous alignment of financial and personal interests. We had some of that, of course; every couple does. But most of our familiarity was hard-earned, strong and resilient familiarity, dredged up from mystery, difference, conflict . . . and sometimes even from anger and despair. Unlike Juliet and Aaron, Ed and I knew from the beginning how different we were—even though we worked together and had some values and interests in common. As a result, we often had plenty of mystery in our relationship. Unlike Juliet and Aaron, we had to create most of our familiarity, but it was the kind of familiarity we could depend on to pull us back together.

Juliet and Aaron's "perfect" relationship was quite different. When they first met, their youth, choice of professions and relative freedom from responsibilities allowed them to enjoy in full the benefits and comfort of the things they had in common. But once their lives and responsibilities became more difficult to manage, the strength of that easy familiarity began to fade. Now that Juliet is a mother, Aaron is a father, and they are working in different careers, they have changed deeply as individuals, and the initial spell of being perfectly fitted to one another has been broken. Unlike Ed and me, the soul-mate couple has plenty of familiarity; but to move into a better relationship, they must the embrace the "betrayal"—which is really the emergence of mystery—and the accompanying fear of difference. They must allow it to pull them together at a different level and learn in the process how to regard their differences with interest and commitment instead of defensiveness.

For a truly "perfect" couple to thrive, the partners must feel both familiar and mysterious to one another. This requires an interpersonal space between oneself and one's beloved, a gap that must abide throughout time and changing conditions in order for the pair to truly love one another. Becoming a warmly engaged witness means embracing the question "Who are you, anyway?" as never too far away or threatening; becoming a willing daily companion; joining life stories; deeply accepting (even being fascinated by) the faults and shortcomings and mistakes of the beloved; being happy for the strengths and resources of the beloved; and offering help in times of need, weakness and illness that is attuned to the specific character of the beloved.

When you get the knack of this warmly attuned witnessing, it will eventually bring you face to face with the sacred path of love. Despite significant distinctions among the different kinds of human love—intimacy, parent-child, sibling and friendship—there is one love and only one that underlies them all, and that is true love.

Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Vermont, and the author of 13 books.

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